Following in the Bard’s footsteps – literally

Discover the 146-mile route that Shakespeare took to travel to the London playhouses – and experience the same scenery that may have inspired Macbeth, Richard II and King Lear.

When he wasn’t writing, William Shakespeare was walking. In particular, he was often found trekking from his home in Stratford-Upon-Avon to the theatres of London's South Bank, an epic 146 miles in total. Who knows which legendary characters, killer lines or key scenes the playwright might have dreamt up as he traversed the West Midlands countryside.

Now, on the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birthday (23 April, 2014), admirers – or those looking for their own inspiration – can follow in his footsteps. Literally.

In 2005, Stratford local and Shakespeare enthusiast Peter Titchmarsh finished piecing together what has become known as “Shakespeare's Way”. By connecting existing footpaths, bridleways (paths formerly used by horses) and a few minor roads, Titchmarsh recreated the route the writer might have taken on his trips back and forth to London.

Scholars believe that Shakespeare first travelled to London between 1585 and 1588, when he was around 21 years old. At first, he likely travelled with other theatre performers – on foot. “It was a lot cheaper,” said Jenny Davidson, Secretary of the Shakespeare's Way Association, which was set up to protect and promote the route. “The luxury of horseback probably came later, when he could afford to pay stabling costs.”

Although the path was created with reference to as many historical resources as possible, Davidson acknowledged there are inevitably some differences. “Clearly the M40 motorway or the Grand Union Canal in London didn't exist in William's day!” she said.

Regardless of its precise historical accuracy, the pathway is a real beauty. It winds through the cottages of the Cotswolds toward the gleaming spires of Oxford, and continues along a surprisingly serene route into central London and the Globe Theatre.

The route starts out at Shakespeare's Birthplace – a particularly appropriate place to begin during this anniversary year. The well preserved 16th-century house in the centre of Stratford-Upon-Avon belonged to William’s father John, a glover and a wool dealer. In honour of the birthday celebrations, the Birthplace visitor centre will open a new exhibition, Famous Beyond Words, in March, retelling the story of Shakespeare's development from Stratford local to world famous playwright, using artefacts from the museum's collection (such as the 1623 First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays and the only reliable source for more than 20 of his works).

The route continues through town past the foundation of New Place, the house that Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he died in 1616; it sadly was demolished in 1759 by the owner, who had become too annoyed with the tourists. The route also passes by the original Tudor buildings, built in 1417, of King Edward VI's school, where young Shakespeare was educated.

After heading down to the River Avon and past the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare's grave lies next to his wife Anne Hathaway’s, the route leaves the town behind and sets out alongside the River Stour. The rolling farmland here is dotted with tiny villages – most little more than a handful of thatched cottages and a church spire, with the occasional country mansion grand and aloof on the outskirts. Shakespeare referenced this part of the Cotswolds in his play, Richard II, when his character the Earl of Northumberland spoke of “these high wild hills and rough uneven ways” during his army's march through the Cotswolds. The pathway then passes near the Rollright Stones, an eerie rock formation resembling a king and a witch, overlooking the plains. It doesn't take much imagination to see where Macbeth's Three Witches of Eastwick, casting toil and trouble from their hill, might have come from.

From there, the route heads deeper into Oxfordshire, where the surroundings are so green and pleasant that Prime Minister David Cameron made them his home, moving to the swanky country town of Chipping Norton in 2001. A few miles on, the pathway weaves through the expansive Blenheim Park estate, past the spectacular 18th-century Blenheim Palace – a World Heritage site and the birthplace of Winston Churchill – before heading into Oxford.

Here, at the centre of the town, not far from Christ Church Cathedral, stood the Crown Tavern, a 14th-century pub once owned by Shakespeare's friend John Davenant. According to the writings of 17th-century gossip and writer John Aubrey, Shakespeare “did in his journey lye at this house in Oxon were he was exceedingly respected”. Indeed, Shakespeare was so respected that, Aubrey insinuated, he may have been the illicit father of Davenant's son. The inn is long gone, and there's now a betting shop on site – but on weekdays it is possible to see the “Painted Room”, one of the tavern's original rooms, where wall paintings from Shakespeare's time were uncovered when wood panelling was removed during renovations in 1927. While there is currently no consistent public access, the rooms will be open on 12 and 13 September 2014 as part of the Oxford Open Doors weekend.

From Oxford, Shakespeare's Way follows the River Thames for several miles, through quiet countryside and slumbering villages; after about 18 miles, it heads into the beech woods of the Chilterns, where red kites, a well-known bird of prey, soar over the chalk hills. Further on, near the small town of Iver with its pretty, 14th-century houses, the pathway crosses the M25, the cacophonous motorway that orbits London – then drops away to follow the route of the Grand Union Canal east towards the centre of the capital.

As the canal was finished in 1882, Shakespeare would probably not have taken this exact route. Still, there is certainly a decent chance that he might have walked along at least some of the Thames Path bridleway toward the Globe Theatre. This remarkably peaceful and beautiful trail – located just half a mile from the South Circular ring road, and from the noise and bustle of west London's traffic-clogged streets – unfurls alongside the river, dipping under a series of bridges, through tree-shaded paths and past tempting riverside pubs. Much of the bridleway follows the route of the Oxford and Cambridge University varsity boat race; there are often rowers practising on the gently lapping waters.

About four miles from Putney, where the boat race route begins, the peace and quiet of the Thames Path is left behind as the famous landmarks of central London come into view – including Lambeth Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. The route finally joins up with the South Bank, and just beyond the Tate Modern lies Shakespeare's Globe, the journey’s final destination. Built 200 yards from the site of the original theatre where many of Shakespeare's most famous plays made their debut, including Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, the Globe is putting on four of the Bard's plays this year in celebration of the anniversary. There is also a permanent exhibition telling the story of the building itself, complete with sets, costumes and reconstructions of what the Bankside area would have looked like in Shakespeare's time.

Shakespeare's literary talents need little introduction. But after walking even just a section or two of Shakespeare's Way, you'll come away with a newfound admiration for his strolling skills, too.